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Amendments to Allow Solar Energy Systems in White Plains Debated

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Members of the public expressed both support and criticism for proposed amendments to White Plains’ zoning ordinance during a public hearing at the White Plains Common Council meeting on June 6

The proposed amendments, which were initially detailed during a work session in late April, would establish regulations for the installation of solar energy systems city-wide, including solar parking canopies and rooftop solar panels. 

The amendments seek to codify specific definitions and dimensional standards for all solar energy systems, establish a new special permit for solar parking canopies and assign approval agencies by installation type and scale. 

“[Solar energy systems] are something that hasn’t been defined in our Zoning Code, but it’s something that’s already in the city and all over the region,” Commissioner of Planning Christopher Gomez said, noting the city’s award-winning solar portfolio

“There’s obviously going to be fear…but I assure you that this ordinance was put together holistically looking at the city and not to accommodate a particular project,” Gomez added.

Within the proposed amendments, solar parking canopies would only be permitted above an already existing impervious surface such as a parking lot or atop a parking structure or garage. Ground-mounted solar farms and pole-mounted solar arrays are not permitted in the proposed updates. 

In a One and Two-Family District, solar parking canopies under 1,000 kilowatts must be on a minimum lot area of two acres and have 30 feet minimum setbacks from all lot lines. Current setbacks required by city zoning for accessory structures range from a minimum of five to fifteen feet. 

“In some cases, we’re doubling or even tripling the required setback,” Gomez said. “Any of the proposed canopies in these districts would be quite a bit further away from neighboring properties than a garage or other outbuildings.”

For solar parking canopies over 1,000 kilowatts, there must be a minimum lot area of five acres and a 175-foot setback from the front yard and an additional 50-foot side and rear yard setback when adjacent to a One and Two-Family Zoning District, in addition to current regulations.

Solar canopies in residential districts can have a maximum height of 15 feet. In a non-residential district, they can be up to 25 feet. 

Gomez identified 32 privately-owned parcels with existing parking areas that meet the five-acre minimum. In One and Two-Family Zoning Districts, there are 11 privately-owned parcels with two to five acres, many of which are religious institutions. 

Gomez estimated that once all required setbacks are taken into consideration, the number of eligible parcels will be lower. 

Solar canopies that are under 1,000 kilowatts would require site plan approval by the Planning Board, and anything over that would require both site plan and special permit use approved by the Common Council. 

The proposed amendments also set forth specific decommissioning procedures for solar energy systems that have not produced energy for a 12-month period, are damaged or are where the existing land lease ends. 

Michael Romita, President and CEO of the Westchester County Association, voiced his support for the proposed amendments to the ordinance, citing their forward-looking nature. 

“It’s well-conceived, and it’s the result of significant study following community outreach and input from environmental and technical experts, including input from NYSERDA,” Romita said. “The ordinance has clear regulations and guidelines and will encourage more of the right kind of development in White Plains.”

Romita added that, in a broader context, it will be virtually impossible for New York State to act on its ambitious climate agenda without proactive steps taken at the local level, including in White Plains. 

Solar canopies, he said, should be straightforward and not controversial.

“This is an investment in infrastructure that is good for the property owner but also good for the environment and the community,” Romita said. “These kinds of ordinances will be increasingly important on a statewide level, and by passing this one, White Plains and Westchester County will be out front in a positive way.”

White Plains resident Jane Eger underscored how crucial the move toward renewable energy, including solar, is given the current climate crisis.

“I think the presentation tonight was marvelous. I understand objections, but sometimes we [need to] change our view of what’s beautiful,” Eger said, noting that others disapprove of how solar looks.

“I think they look great,” Eger said. “Maybe there’s some change that could take place within the hearts of people who feel like it would be an eyesore and they could shift to [thinking] ‘Hey, we’re going something that’s really good and important for our children and grandchildren who are going to be in really deep trouble.’”

Charles Calloway, of Solar Uptown Now Services in New York City, echoed similar sentiments in voicing his support for the proposed amendments.

“I think it’s a fantastic plan, understanding it’s not always about beauty but about efficiency and making sure communities of color and the entire state of New York get to benefit,” Calloway said.

Matt Siegel, who previously spoke against the proposed solar carport at 1133 Westchester Avenue last year, disagreed with Gomez’s statement that there is a rational basis for the proposed amendments.

Siegel expressed concerns that homeowners who live near locations where solar canopies could be installed would see decreased property values. 

“I appreciate the indirect benefits to folks, but I see zero direct benefits to White Plains residents,” Siegel said, adding that solar canopies are not attractive to look at. 

Michael Matarese, of Old Oak Ridge Residents Association, said that while White Plains residents have a vested interest in trying to preserve the environment, they also want to preserve their own neighborhoods. 

“Having structures that are eyesores, impinge on our residential areas or homeowners, I don’t think is what we moved here for or what any of us want,” Matarese said. “Nobody wants the environment to be destroyed, we all want clean energy, but there has to be a context or consideration for the residents who live here.”

Mark Laloo, a member of IBEW Local 3, encouraged the city to use local labor on future solar projects should the updates to the zoning ordinance be made. 

“The highest quality work will be done by members of my union who live in this community,” Laloo said. “We’d love to do solar projects here in White Plains. It’s good for the environment and the economy.”

The proposed solar carport at 1133 Westchester Ave., which was determined to not be a permitted use under the city’s current Zoning Ordinance in February, was set to reappear as a public hearing before the Common Council on June 6. However, it was adjourned until Aug. 1. 

Throughout the public hearing, some speakers voiced concerns that the proposed amendments were being suggested to accommodate 1133 Westchester Ave. 

However, Gomez underscored in his presentation before the Common Council that the proposed amendments were not conceived to align with any one development but rather to take advantage of safe, renewable, non-polluting energy; decrease the cost of electricity; increase employment and business opportunities and mitigate any potential impacts of systems. 

Currently, White Plains is seventh in the nation for solar installations. 

Jack Waxman, of Scarsdale, commended White Plains for its preexisting solar installations and encouraged the city to continue being a leader in renewable energy.

“Your grandkids and great-grandkids are going to be asking, ‘What did you do to address it when you were a councilman or councilwoman?’” Waxman said. “I think if you say to them, we didn’t do something because [some people think] the solar panels looked ugly, that’s not going to be a good answer.”

“Our planet, our climate deserves more than that,” Waxman underscored. 

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